SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, on June 26, 1945, before the Japanese surrender ending World War II, 50 nations gathered at San Francisco’s Opera House to sign the United Nations Charter.
Nations pledged “to practise tolerance and live together in peace ..., and to ensure ... that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.
They sought “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, ... and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to ... promote social progress and better standards of life”.
The charter’s contents reflected some contradictions inherent in framing an international organisation recognising national sovereignty as its organising principle, and other compromises.
Although the conduct of member states often falls short of the UN’s lofty goals, its charter was nonetheless a monumental achievement, providing the foundation for a rules-based international order.
Forty-six Allied countries, including the four sponsors – the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China – were originally invited to the conference.
The conference invited four other states – the Byelorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics, Denmark and Argentina. Poland did not send a representative as its new government was still uncertain.
Of the 50 participating states, only four were African and nine Asian.
The conference was not only one of the most significant international gatherings in history, but perhaps the longest ever. The two-month- long conference was attended by 3,500 people, including 850 delegates, their advisers, staff and the secretariat, plus more than 2,500 from the media and other observers.
It opened on April 25, 1945 with great fanfare, despite the sudden death of its principal architect, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on April 12. The task of carrying on fell to Vice-President Harry Truman who had become president.
Truman often quoted English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, carried in his wallet, bewildering colleagues, senators and staffers who doubted his commitment to international peace. Tennyson foresaw that nations, realising they could destroy one another, might agree to form “the Parliament of Man”, to resolve disputes peacefully.
Clashes and compromises
Many serious differences of opinion triggered crises. For example, the Soviet Union proposed that all 16 Soviet republics should have UN membership to balance the influence of US allies: the US countered by proposing membership for all its 50 states!
A compromise was struck, allowing membership for the Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine; the Soviet Union then withdrew its opposition to Argentina, which had supported the Axis powers.
The most important deliberations concerned the UN Security Council (UNSC), initially composed of five permanent members (US, UK, USSR, China, France) and six elected members. The P5’s right to veto provoked a long and heated debate.
Others feared that when one of the P5 threatens the peace, the UNSC would be ineffectual. But the P5 collectively insisted that as the main responsibility for maintaining world peace would fall most heavily on them, the veto provision was vital.
Australia proposed that no permanent member should be allowed to veto when involved in a Chapter VII dispute over threats to peace. The US delegation blocked this and a Soviet proposal allowing P5 vetoes on procedural matters, eg, discussion of disputes in which it may be involved.
While US officials saw the UN General Assembly (UNGA) primarily as a “talk shop”, the USSR tried to limit it from discussing sensitive political matters. However, recognising its importance for legitimacy, the compromise reached permits the UNGA to discuss any issue “within the scope of the Charter”.
Colonialism was not supposed to be discussed at the conference to avoid alienating the European imperial powers, whom the US needed to isolate the Soviet Union. But the Asian and African countries attending wanted countries still under the colonial yoke to attain freedom and independence as soon as possible.
Although not on the original agenda, after much debate, Chapters XI, XII and XIII provided some norms for colonial administration and pathways for decolonisation. Nonetheless, these ambiguous, at best, pronouncements greatly disappointed anti-colonialists around the world.
US hegemonic from outset
Despite some compromises inherent in framing such an agreement, the UN Charter favoured the US. It promised to protect freedom of action and national sovereignty, as desired by the US, but contained no open-ended commitment to preserve other countries’ territorial integrity, like the League of Nations Covenant’s Article 10.
Article 2(7) placated American sovereigntists and nationalists, declaring: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
The US and the UK also got what they wanted for regional and plurilateral arrangements, including defence and mutual assistance organisations.
Some US officials were concerned the UN might threaten the Monroe Doctrine privileging the US in the Western hemisphere, while limiting its ability to intervene elsewhere. Some clever drafting of Chapter VIII provided blanket endorsement to regional organisations, also seen as reflecting the principle of subsidiarity.
Article 51 enshrined the principle of “self-defence against armed attack, either individual or collective”. Although not fully appreciated in 1945, such provisions later helped legitimise various US and other post-colonial security pacts in Europe, Asia and the Americas against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Participants also considered a proposal for compulsory jurisdiction for a World Court, but the US secretary of state recognised this would jeopardise Senate ratification. Delegates compromised, agreeing to let countries decide whether to accept the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s jurisdiction.
The US has had an uneasy relationship with the ICJ from the outset, never submitting to its authority, and reacting negatively to court decisions seen as adverse to the US.
From Truman to Trump
Presiding at the closing ceremony, Truman cautioned that the success of the new world body would depend on collective self-restraint. “We all have to recognise – no matter how great our strength – that we must deny ourselves the licence to do as we please. This is the price each nation will have to pay for world peace.”
Truman is probably turning in his grave watching Trump’s jingoist “America First” policy undermine the UN and multilateralism. Are multilateralism and the UN now doomed as Trump belies Tennyson’s hope and leads the US to up-end the Roosevelt-Truman legacy? – IPS